Free Trade Worries

US wheat farmers fret about more imports from Canada, Mexico - a letter from Casselton, N.D.

DICK and Tom Sinner Jr. have the kind of farm office you'd expect in rural North Dakota: a small room in a barn, with huge, polished horns mounted over the desk and a wall clock showcasing grains. About the only signs of the outside world are the telephone and a dirty computer terminal linked to a satellite dish propped up on concrete blocks outside.

But don't get the wrong idea. It's hard to find an area of the world that doesn't directly affect the Sinners's farm. Like many Americans, they worry about free trade.

Europe? "The Europeans have dumped their production and affected us here," Nick Sinner says.

Mexico? The proposed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) could ruin the market for the Sinners's sugarbeet crop. A clause in the treaty could allow Mexicans unlimited access to the United States market.

Cuba? Opening trade with the nation could spell disaster for US sugar producers.

More open trade has its pluses. "We know we have the soybeans that are used in tofu," Nick Sinner says. This year they shipped soybeans to Japan. Last year, they exported to Dubai. "We are looking at export markets," he says.

The problem is that the minuses of free trade loom much larger than its pluses - at least for the moment. North Dakota's battle with Canada over durum wheat is symptomatic of what farmers here are seeing.

North Dakota is the nation's leading producer of durum, a type of wheat that is used to make pasta. Traditionally, little wheat crossed the US-Canada border because both countries produced more grain than they consumed. US and Canadian farmers had a kind of informal agreement that they wouldn't sell into each other's markets.

All that changed when the US-Canadian Free Trade Agreement came into being in the 1980s. Canadian durum has swamped the North Dakota industry. In the first 10 months of this crop year, for example, Canadian durum imports into the US were nearly seven times the total imported for the entire 1986-87 crop year.

"It has really depressed the durum industry in North Dakota," Tom Sinner says. The traditional 15 to 40 cent premium for a bushel of durum has disappeared, so the Sinners have cut back production by two-thirds. Durum acres this year in the upper Midwest are now less than half what they averaged in the 1980s. The Sinners are joining a new cooperative that will operate a pasta plant in North Dakota. That will help, but it won't restore the state's durum industry.

"It's not only durum," says Neal Fisher, deputy administrator of the North Dakota Wheat Commission. Canadian spring-wheat imports into the US will almost certainly double last year's record.

Canada has also surpassed the US as the leading wheat exporter to Mexico, thanks to its monopoly marketing system and, the US charges, transportation subsidies. Yet, the binational board that hears such complaints has sided with Canada.

Suddenly, North Dakota farmers aren't so optimistic about freer trade with Mexico, Mr. Fisher says. "There's been a very dramatic shift - in the last six to eight months in particular - away from NAFTA."

Canadians worry, too, says Bob Roehle, a spokesman for the Canadian Wheat Board. Trade tensions with the US might force Canada to give up its unique marketing system, which has served farmers well. Tom Sinner sees the same dilemma. "We are willing to try to compete with them on a level field," he says, "but how do you do it? How do you eliminate decades of government policy?"

The answers are coming far too slowly for rural North Dakotans.

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